The last stop of the caravan-style Pro Kabaddi League was in Pune, after which the play-offs were scheduled in the cities of Mumbai and Chennai.
The home team, Puneri Paltan, were on course to topple the table-toppers and end the league as the highest ranked team in their zone. Unfortunately, the home curse struck the Pune team as they narrowly pipped Haryana Steelers for the second position and ended seven points lesser than Gujarat Fortunegiants, who ended as league leaders.
This meant they would have to go through the motions of play-offs and eliminators for a chance to feature in the 28 October final in Chennai.
The newcomers UP Yoddha, on the other hand, just about managed to enter the play-offs after a few lacklustre results in the last few matches including the 40-point defeat to the Bengaluru Bulls which threatened to upset UP's dreams of making it to the next round in their debut season.
But, on Monday, at the DOME, NSCI Stadium in Mumbai, past records weren't important as the match between UP Yoddha and Puneri Paltan kicked off the business end of the tournament — the play-offs.
It was a match between a Puneri Paltan with a strong all-round game and the UP Yoddha who needed to buckle up on their defence to compliment their in-form raiders.
The match began with Rajesh Mondal being tackled in his first raid, followed by the Rs 93-lakh buy Nitin Tomar winning a point with his first raid as UP Yoddha started piling on early points.
Rishank Devadiga joined in the scoring and the defence started to work together as a cohesive unit as the UP led 5-0 under three minutes.
Within five minutes of play, Devadiga proved to be too much to handle for the Puneri defence as he effected an all-out to push the Yoddhas up by seven points to lead 10-3.
With their backs on the mat, Puneri Paltan captain Deepak Hooda came up with a couple of successful raids to swing the momentum back to his side's favour after Pune's strong defence sent Tomar back to the dug-out.
However, Devadiga was still firmly in control of the proceedings and was winning points for his team that increased UP Yoddha's lead to eight points with the score reading 14-6 at the nine minute mark.
This is the time when Puneri Paltan who have scored the most number of tackle points in this season decided to step up their defensive game. Girish Maruti Ernak proved why he was one of the most promising finds of this season as Tomar and Devadiga were stopped in their tracks to pave way for a Puneri Paltan resurgence.
In the next six minutes, the team from Pune grew from strength to strength as they won five out of the six points scored in that duration. The scores now read 15-11 and the UP Yoddhas seemed to be struggling against the Paltans.
Both teams then traded points one after the other but Deepak Hooda's do-or-die raid exploits and an all-out inflicted to the UP Yoddhas ensured the spoils were shared when the half-time whistle blew for the scores to read 18-18.
This was a testimony to the dogged persistence of the Pune outfit, who were trailing 3-10 at one point.
Puneri Paltan seemed unstoppable in the initial moments of the second half as Hooda led from the front to race to 8-point lead after five minutes of play.
Hooda scored a Super 10 and Girish Ernak scored a High 5 as everything seemed to be going in Puneri Paltan's favour with 10 minutes to go and the scores reading 33-23.
However, the match was far from over as Devadiga switched gears to amass quick points and enforce an all-out on the Puneri Paltan who were now holding on to a slender lead of two points. There were still five minutes left on the clock and Devadiga was in ominous form.
The 34-32 scoreline got even closer as Hooda couldn't get past the Yoddha raiders. But, the Paltan defence pulled one right back with four minutes to go to and continued to maintain the two-point lead.
This lead was then maintained till the very end by smart play from the much more experienced Puneri Paltan defence, which knew when to strike and when to play the waiting game.
Puneri Paltan's 17 tackle points, as compared to the eight by the UP Yoddhas, proved to be the deciding factor between both the teams.
Though UP Yoddhas were better in the raiding department with Devadiga ending with 15 points in this game and Tomar finishing with nine points, their top defender Jeeva Kumar managing just two points hit them hard. The other factor that affected their performance was the loss of player Sagar Krishna to injury early in the second half.
The UP Yoddha team can be proud of their performance in the eliminator and in the entire tournament because this was a team that was never bogged down by pressure and the Lucknow lads always found a way to come back stronger after a loss.
Unfortunately, this time there will not be any such chance as it was curtains for the newcomers who gave it all.
Puneri Paltan stayed alive in this competition with some clever defence and time-consuming strategies to continue their quest for their first title after being semi-finalists in the previous two editions.
Considering the way they played after having their backs to the mat, the team from Pune will fancy their chances to go all the way in this tournament.
But first, they will face a Patna Pirates team that is led by an unstoppable force which goes by the name of Pardeep Narwal.
The last time they faced each other in this tournament, Puneri Paltan won the match 47-42 despite Pardeep's 19 points.
With Pardeep dealing in 20 and 30 points now, will the Puneri Paltan defence fail to stop the juggernaut in his tracks and allow him to realise his team's dream of a hat-trick of titles?
Will the impenetrable Pune defence continue to hold fort and go one step closer to fulfilling their dream of getting promoted from perennial semi-finalists to title winners?
All these questions and much more will be answered when the Puneri Paltans take on Patna Pirates in the 3rd eliminator for a place in the Qualifier 2 that will give them a ticket to the grand finale in Chennai.
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Updated Date: Oct 24, 2017 16:13:44 IST